Staff Reflections on Race
In our "Reflections on Race" series, we encourage OLLI at ASU members, staff, and instructors to reflect on their past experiences, give space for their present emotions and thoughts, and provide insight and hope for the future. What do you want the younger generations to know about your experiences with race? What can we learn from the things you have heard, seen, participated in, felt, done? What has the present moment reminded you about the past?
We will be sending this project to ASU students, so they may learn from us as we learn from them.
Click here to submit your Reflection on Race.
Click here to read Member Reflections on Race.
I thought I understood prejudice. I never considered myself to have white privilege. But I was wrong.
I am Jewish and therefore a minority; I’ve lost family in the holocaust, I know there is much anti-Semitism in the world. But you can’t “see” this about me.
My husband is Mexican, my children are biracial. I thought I understood their experience with prejudice. But you can’t “see” this about me.
I now understand that the color of my skin protects me from these prejudices.
But I’ve decided to try to do better, to expand my way of thinking by reading and watching and listening to everything I can concerning racial inequality.
What change do I hope will come of this for our next generation? That we will all take the time to look deeper into everyone we meet and embrace the inner beauty everyone has.
Years ago, my husband (who was born in Mexico) and I attended a large church service in his hometown. I distinctly remember sitting in the church, enjoying the ceremony and feeling welcomed by all. I also remember the moment I realized that I was the only white person in the room. Suddenly, I felt small. Uncomfortable. Different. Misunderstood. I finally felt what it was like to be a minority. I imagine feeling like that all the time, through my whole life. This is my first step in understanding the Black experience and I have a million steps to go.
It’s time to dig deeper, learn more, grow more, love more.
Dr. Richard Knopf
Somewhere along the way, I learned that all of God’s children are created in God’s image. It breaks my heart when somewhere along the way, we forget that we are. Gentleness, love, acceptance, healing, caring, supporting, peace, embracing, encouraging. I think that’s the stuff that defines that kind of image. Hatred, prejudice, fear, distrust, anger, belittlement, disparagement, superiority. I think that’s the stuff that shreds the very core of being human. It’s the stuff that shreds the very core of goodness. That’s the stuff that we can overcome, shredding the negativity with love. What can we do together? To build a community of love? To build an enduring legacy? From generation to generation? That perpetuates nothing but love?
I'm from the South, the Deep South.
My father was in middle school when
desegregation happened. As a white girl,
I benefited from a broken system - I wanted
When I was a kid, I thought Tracy Chapman
was a guy, but I didn't care as long as her songs
were on repeat - I knew those injustices were not my
experiences, but real. I still love her music - she hoped for
As a young adult I read Orwell, Huxley, and Renan
and Angelou, Conrad, and Fanon and Lippman, Dante,
Kafka, Hemingway, Dickens. Through time and place I saw
the world, bigger than me, so beautifully complex - I dreamed of
I dated a racist man. For 3.5 years.
Stayed quiet. He wasn't just a little bit
racist, I wasn't at all naive. I was eighteen,
I thought he was a ticket out - even still, I knew
There's this joke that the more you learn,
the less you realize you know. My last year
of undergrad changed my life. I became sober
to the inequities of our systems - believed I could be
I have two degrees, working on a third,
focused on the importance of communication.
I hold so much space for others to talk, sans judgement,
I neglected to uplift those without a voice - this is my time to be
Learning, loving, and living aren't linear. Growth isn't linear. Hurt, trauma, grieving - not linear. But I'm trying, and I've never been afraid of a sharp curve, as long as it's not cyclical.
The Arrow And The Song
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Shirley Perez Ochoa
Hello my lovely OLLI members,
Many of you may know me as a voice at the other end of the phone or from the very few times I would stand outside of the classroom to sign you in. I know it’s been a while since you’ve last heard from me, but I am here today to talk about an important issue that I hold close to my heart. As a non-black Latinx person in America, I have some level of privilege and I feel that it is my responsibility to use it. I did not realize until now that my voice is important to the Black Lives Matter movement, too.
The death of George Floyd has been horrifying and heart-wrenching and we all know that he, as well as Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubrey are only a few of the many who die unjustly because of racism and discrimination in our country. I stand with George Floyd’s family and countless others that have suffered from injustice, hate, race inequality, and persecution. Evidently this is an unresolved horror that still runs very deep in our society.
It is important to acknowledge that racism within our own community exists. Racism exists within the Latinx community, and it isn’t only White America. We must all come together to work for change. We can only heal and move forward towards a better future by dealing with this head on, addressing it, educating ourselves and each other so that future generations never have to experience such injustices. In order to see real change it is going to take everyone to stand in solidarity for all Black lives, and standing up for what is right. It starts within our own communities and ourselves.
As a Mexican American, I stand proudly with my black brothers and sisters. While these injustices are not new and the pain and suffering is global, I think it’s only responsible to take a stand and acknowledge the pain the Black community has suffered and continues to suffer, not only today, but every day. Change is coming and it is up to us to make it happen. I urge people to use their voice responsibly. Black lives matter and this is the time to stand for justice and demand a change.
Thank you for allowing me to express my stance in the Black Lives Matter Movement. I believe this won't be the last you'll hear from me, until next time.
With lots of love,
Shirley Perez Ochoa
Last December I was fortunate enough to spend two weeks in Cuba. I knew little of the country’s less recent history and, in preparation, read several books. What I did learn was that the history of slavery and oppression began in Cuba with the first European colonizers and was equally as horrific if not more so than that we experienced in the United States. History and historical novels are good sources of recounting what humans can do to one another and the environment. Though I do believe we need to remember, perhaps our challenge today is to reject the adage, “history repeats itself” and to try to envision how we would want the history of today to appear to those looking back on it. And then work to make it so.
Conversations are the best way to understand one another. I know that is hard for me to do and imagine it’s very hard for many of us. My thoughts and writing may not be as eloquent as many others but this is how I felt when such awful and powerful things were happening over the last few weeks.
This is what I know:
- I was born and raised in Flint, Michigan.
- My parents were educators and social workers.
- My father was the Executive Director of Big Brothers of the Flint area. He believed everyone deserved to have a father figure in their lives and that it did make a difference.
- I am a product of an educational system that was disrupted every year from 1967-1974 by racial unrest because of inequality and the “unjust” judicial system.
- I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color.
- I know I am privileged because I am white.
- I have raised an Asian son, he is brown.
- I know his peers can be more influential than his parents.
- I believe that one (not the only) way to MAKE CHANGE is to VOTE for individuals that can help us make those changes.
- I have to be more proactive in addressing those that I believe to be racist.
- I also feel afraid to do that sometimes.
- I don’t know that I have done all that I can do to help stop racism.
- I was raised to and do believe that EVERYONE is valued and deserves respect.
- I am deeply saddened and sorry that we have not made more progress.
- I want to do better.
If you could change one thing about this broken world, what would it be? For me, I would want to eliminate racism and racial inequities. I would want to see the human family live on a level playing field. It is especially outrageous to me that people of color, in this country and around the globe, bear the largest share of the burdens of poverty and lack of opportunity. What is it going to take to change the trajectory of history? Are we finally sick enough of our current situation? When will America live up to its highest ideals — equality before the law, justice for all — rather than just giving lip service to them in our songs and speeches? Something has to give.
The term "white privilege" is daunting to some and taboo to others but is personally one of my favorites. It wasn't until I moved to the city that I was able to understand true meaning of the words. We don't want to accept the fact that it exists because that would mean accepting the disadvantages others face based on our own advantages we've received all along. The truth is, I think we recognize it every single day but no one does anything because that would cause an imbalance of power. Those who are of the minority experience struggle and trauma in ways that white people could never understand. Being a part of the discrimination and responding with, "I was raised that way," to justify bigotry is only a horrific excuse that furthers the oppression of people and a refusal to see or be a part of change. It is simply unacceptable. We are all humans with various rich, beautiful, cultural and historical backgrounds. We must recognize these differences, challenges, and the historical significance of oppression in order to move toward a more equitable society where all humans can thrive. As the self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrier, poet", Audre Lorde, once said, "I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you." This has been a long and brutal fight, and we must all work together to stop it, to be better. As a neighbor, a relative, a bystander, a friend, an OLLI at ASU student, a human being, please, recognize your privilege, and use it for good.
The Two Hunters
By Kahlil Gibran
Upon a day in May, Joy and Sorrow met beside a lake. They greeted one another, and they sat down near the quiet waters and conversed.
Joy spoke of the beauty which is upon the earth, and the daily wonder of life in the forest and among the hills, and of the songs heard at dawn and eventide.
And Sorrow spoke, and agreed with all that Joy had said; for Sorrow knew the magic of the hour and the beauty thereof. And Sorrow was eloquent when he spoke of May in the fields and among the hills.
And Joy and Sorrow talked long together, and they agreed upon all things of which they knew.
Now there passed by on the other side of the lake two hunters. And as they looked across the water one of them said, "I wonder who are those two persons?" And the other said, "Did you say two? I see only one."
The first hunter said, "But there are two." And the second said, "There is only one that I can see, and the reflection in the lake is only one."
"Nay, there are two," said the first hunter, "and the reflection in the still water is of two persons."
But the second man said again, "Only one do I see." And again the other said, "But I see two so plainly."
And even unto this day one hunter says that the other sees double; while the other says, "My friend is somewhat blind."
Dr. Claire McWilliams
When we first started our quarantine being outdoors in AZ--the mild and wonderful spring we had--was my solace. For the first eight weeks I took my bike round and round the blocks, sometimes morning, noon, and night. Often with my husband Wayne and our beloved doctoral student-turned-family-member Josephine, sometimes alone. I took breaks under big shady trees in a school field by our house and observed the silence (what time for that would I have had in the regular pace of my life?). I marveled at the 'cotton candy golden sky' sunsets (what my daughter used to call them when she was little). I listened to the sound of sprinklers. I enjoyed the smell of fresh cut grass, food on a grill, or the hint of drying laundry wafting through the air. Aside from alarming amounts of warning tape on the park playground, it looked and smelled like normal. It helped.
Photo: Claire and Jo enjoying a sunset bike ride on a strangely cool evening in June
I live in a multi-generational home (oldest member 77, youngest 15) with high risk members--so we took the 'stay at home concept' very seriously from the start.
When the weather heated up and more time was spent sequestered indoors I started to get increasingly anxious.
I started thinking about my employment, the future of education as we know it, what teaching in the Fall will look like--the safety of students, faculty, staff, my family, and myself.
I worried about Grace and Grant--my two very lethargic teenage kids.
Then day the video of George Floyd's murder circulated and our whole country quaked. It felt like a breaking open of the scab on the oozy, ugly wound that has never been treated or had the chance to heal. The implications personally and professionally made me feel like my hair was on fire...it still does. There is so much that needs to change. There is so much I need to change.
Then AZ 'reopened.' I saw via social media people having 'normal' trips, interactions, dinners out, family gatherings [I couldn't go to] like the virus had disappeared or never existed...and I felt jealous and really annoyed (frankly) at being holed up like a hermit when others were enjoying activities and close interactions.
My level of worry, if left unchecked, is commensurate with the increasing virus in AZ.
The only factor that can interrupt that worry is me.
So I decided it's the moon and the sky that I find reverie. I am privileged to have a backyard pool. At night I wade in, I lean back, and look up. The moon and the sky are available for my marveling. The satellites pass over head. A shooting star races by from time to time. The crickets chirp. I turn on a playlist I have made just for this moment. Songs that are calming, but not sad, hopeful, and that do not conjure too much nostalgia or longing for what is not available. This song was released on May 2 without prior notice by one of my favorite folk artists Ray LaMontagne (https://youtu.be/ZVfPu42wDvs) and it is THE SONG for this time for me. ️
Hello, you're scared 'cause you can't see the light
You toss and turn through the night
Where do you turn, when this livin' starts to burn through
Layers that you learned wrap around your heart somehow?
Lean on me, and I'll lean on you
And together, we'll get through
We always do.
Claire McWilliams, PhD
Tourism Development & Management Instructor
I was immediately lonely walking into the library last week. The OLLI classroom chairs were covered in plastic and shoved into a corner, and cafe tables sat sterile and empty, too. Even the espresso machine was hidden, draped by an orange plastic tablecloth. No sign of anyone.
Venturing toward the front of the library, I see the plexiglass germ shield around the "answers desk", sanitizer dispensers near doorways and three upholstered chairs spaced very far apart. After weeks of being shuttered, there are tiny signs of awakening and some of what the new normal will be.
COVID-19 was a shocking and unwelcome interruption to our routines. And human rights injustices in our country have stunned us in a profound way. I hope that as we cautiously re-open the library, this place of ideas, community and learning, it comes with optimism and energy to become better than it was before. I hope for a healthy, safe and welcoming public space for our deserving community.
"Every person, organization, and even society reaches a point at which they owe it to themselves to Hit Refresh -- to reenergize, renew, reframe, and rethink their purpose. If only it were as easy as punching that little refresh button on your browser. Sure, in this age of continuous updates and always-on technologies, hitting refresh may sound quaint, but still when it's done right, when people and culture re-create and refresh, a renaissance can be the result." - Satya Nadella (CEO of Microsoft)
My name is Virginia, but you can call me Ginnie. I've been a staff member with OLLI at ASU for nearly 8 months now. I'm an ASU Alumni and an Air Force Veteran. Today, I'll share with you a story. My story. A small glimpse into some of the catalytic moments that shaped the person behind all of these words. The plan is to tell it in three parts, roughly organized by order of decades lived, and edited for brevity.
Before I lived in Arizona, I lived in the Carolinas, both North, and South Carolina. Before anywhere else, I lived in West Virginia, my birthplace. My friends and classmates in WV all looked the same, talked the same, and pretty much all grew up in the same community as their parents did before them. It was a simple, sweet, and seemingly innocent upbringing on the surface.
It might appear strange to read these following words from a Millennial, but I remember the day that my sister recognized someone that did not look like her (a fair-skinned, blue-eyed girl) - "you're black. You're black all over" she said as she pointed to this mother and son in Big Lots. The air was charged, you could hear a pin drop.
The mother looked at my mom, whose son was probably close to my sister's age, and said nothing. No words exchanged, no smiles or awkward platitudes, just a silent stare. The look in that mother's eyes contained infinitely more information than my young brain could normalize at the time. It was the early 90's, I was probably 4 or 5 years old, my sister was 2 years younger than me. It wasn't until we moved to North Carolina a couple of years later that I would learn what that mother's stare meant, as well as the meaning of my own mother's silence.
My first day of second grade was the first day I was the one being recognized as someone that did not look like everyone else. "You're a Mexican" this young boy shouted as he pointed jeeringly at my tan skin, brown eyes, and dark, curly hair. I had never been called that before. I didn't know what that he meant, but it didn't feel good. I had so many questions. Did that little boy call me a slur? No (what's a slur to a second grader)? Did he mean to hurt my feelings? Yes. Was I singled out for my skin color? Definitely. Naturally, I was upset, so I told my teacher. She consoled me, and made the little boy write me an apology (that I still have to this day): "I'm sorry for calling you a Mexican" he wrote.
At the time, that must've been enough because we were okay after that. As it turns out, neither of our young brains were equipped to handle the bigger questions: Why make fun of someone for what they look like? Why would "Mexican" mean something bad? Why does one's outward nationality mean anything to a second-grader? Little did I know there were other people of all ages who were experiencing varying degrees of differential treatment in their own worlds. Even with an apology, there are so many unanswered questions.
Unfortunately, this part of my story doesn't have simple answers to those questions. I'm actively figuring them out to this day. That second-grade exchange paints a piece of this maturing mosaic I like to call my life. Our voices are powerful, especially when we choose our words wisely, with intention and transparency. I've sat on these words for a long time, unsure of what others might think about the way they land. But it is time for each of us to be vulnerable and dare greatly into a bold new future together, to grow beyond our initial discomforts.
It is my hope that maybe you, too, will find encouragement to give voice to your experiences; by putting our words to action, we just might change the world - whichever way we choose. Thank you for sharing your time and space with me. I look forward to getting to know you a little bit better, a little bit deeper, as we create these worldly works of art.
Identity is such a critical part of one’s development. It helps us manage expectations, shapes what (and how) we learn, conveys how we relate to those around us, and helps us navigate the present that will define our future. Our identities are continuous, they change over the course of time and the influences surrounding us.
Among middle-schoolers, identity was little more than skin-deep. No longer a second-grader, my brain has developed a sensitive intellect as I entered the roller coaster of adolescence. Most of us weren’t equipped to go beyond superficial labels. Coupled with the growing pains of transitioning hormones, putting yourself in a box to feel more or less "welcomed" by your peers was just another song that I learned the dance moves to.
Grade school in a quiet rural town of South Carolina felt like behind-the-scenes tension, hushed whispers, and strategic stares, which gnawed away at my teenage sense of self-worth. The classroom dynamic reminded me of my early school years in West Virginia - most of the students looked the same, talked the same, and held strong familial roots to the area. But there was one big difference in this palpable "sameness" - I couldn’t put my finger on it by looking at a yearbook picture, but I could feel it when I got home from school everyday.
“So, what are you?” - this was a question asked so frequently, it virtually translated into “hey, how is it going?” Well, whenever I would ask that question at home, my mother always told me that I was Cherokee and Italian. Ancestry.com didn’t yet exist, and that sounded good enough to me, so I took that to mean I was half-Cherokee, half-Italian, which I passed onto my curious middle-school classmates. This new label helped me befriend students from different sides of the cafeteria table and I also got the chance to hear stories about how people labeled themselves and were labeled by others.
Labels aren’t inherently bad - even by middle-school standards - but they can pack a punch depending on how someone is labeled by a group. You know, the “smart kids,” the “popular girls,” and the “class clowns.” Some labels are heralded for their familiarity, but what about the ones that degrade the individual and who they associate with? Those labels have a way of unraveling the threads that keep us connected - they demean, dissociate, and deteriorate our humanity. Whether they come from the mouths of babes, peers, or elders, the words we choose are powerful.
It wasn’t until moving to the South that I began asking about my origin story. Until then, I never had to answer “what am I?” to anyone, including myself. After that, I remember flipping through photos of my mother when she was younger, hoping to find a sprinkle of myself when she was my age, to no avail.
One day, in my junior year, a Polaroid of a smiling man with curly hair and an olive complexion appeared before me. “This is your father,” my mother told me. “His father was Mexican and his mother was Italian - that’s where you got your dark features from.” Well, that was certainly breaking news to me, I'd been telling people I was “half-Cherokee, half-Italian” for years. That second-grade boy was right about me the entire time?!
Stay tuned for Part 3. I don't have answers - but I do hope to share with you a bit of perspective from my side of the cafeteria table, so please, pull up a seat and let’s get to know one another. May these words be an open invitation to share your unique points of view. I look forward to getting to know a bit more about you. Thanks for tuning in.
After a year of not taking college seriously, I found myself stuck on academic probation; work became my refuge. I got to know the people, who became my "extended family," that made up a small-town community, but to a greater extent, I began to see a larger world. It was a social outlet that allowed me to not think about the toxicity in my home.
My mother knew how to use her words - she would whip the listener into submission and eventual defeat, regardless of who posed the initial infraction. But I’ll tell you one thing: she met her match when she made me. Each day, we’d go toe-to-toe, physically, verbally, and emotionally. She was a wolf in sheep's clothing: celebrating the diversity of her friends in daytime, and spewing the nastiest vitriol by night (on weekends, when she had the time, she might hit up a rally or two with her boyfriend).
You can only be mocked for your friend group, your inclusivity, and your outward expression for so long before you grow a backbone. I’m not particularly proud of some of the decisions I made to proclaim my personal freedom, but I do get a bit of peace knowing that my mother also cannot - in good faith - claim pride for hers, though try she may.
One day at work, my manager pulled me aside and asked me a very important question that changed the course of my life forever. “You’ve got potential, you’re smart... Why don’t you go join the military, get out of here and see someplace else?” Nineteen-year-old me required little convincing. The next day, my friend took me to the nearest mall, where I spoke to an Air Force recruiter and started the journey that led me here today, over 10 years later.
That decades-long journey of entering and exiting the service showed me the rugged beauty of the human spirit. I was stationed in Charleston for the majority of my enlistment. I worked alongside people from all walks of life - each one of us, a descendant of this American history in some way shape or form - united by a core set of values: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do.
When we infuse excellence into all that we do - from the words that we choose to the people we associate with - we hold the power to change our lives and by extension, the world around us! Those core values helped me gain a deeper understanding: there will be struggles in life, but we have no choice but to embrace them - the future of our lives depends on it. Sometimes, you might have to excommunicate yourself from familial ties and move across the country to assemble the person you know in your heart to be and be proud of them.
All of that, to say this: when you give yourself the freedom to share what you have to say, choose your words wisely. They just might cause someone to change their life. Now, it is your turn to share your words with the rest of us. Tell us the stories from your community, your home, your background. What are the moments that have shaped who you are? What insights are you sitting on that could be the catalyst for someone you have yet to meet? Will you show us the world behind your words?
Thank you for joining me.